Mark O’Brien is the subject of the emotionally potent Oscar-winning short subject “Breathing Lessons,” which airs as part of the Cinemax Reel Life series beginning Thursday. Afflicted by polio as a boy, today he’s permanently confined to an iron lung. And while there’s no getting around his physical limitations, Jessica Yu’s documentary sagely focuses on the subject’s life, work and observations to make its points dramatically and organically.
What separates the film from countless other chronicles about victims of disease or physical disability is the indomitable spirit of the subject. O’Brien, a journalist and writer, is considerably more knowledgeable and eloquent about his lot than others who have been profiled. While he’s apt to be sentimental or maudlin at times, he’s also angry, sanguine, poignant and irrational. Undoubtedly his ability to write subjectively has been liberating, allowing him not to self-censor his sometimes contradictory feelings.
The film steers away from broad generalizations or a “this is your life” format. Yu employs some historic material, including an amazing clip from O’Brien’s UC Berkeley graduation — on a stretcher — for context, but grounds the film in the present. The subject’s comments about his personal sexual experiences and the ghettoization of the disabled are far more effective because of the source and the immediacy of his situation.
The filmmakers employed a standard docu approach in filming O’Brien, with some arty segues meant to complement narration that involves his prose and poetry. The latter is only fitfully successful as it tends to interrupt the flow of this very engaging personality.
“Breathing Lessons” is a testament that very basic credos of the documentary form continue to work effectively. A strong subject or issue is best staged simply and directly, with the camera capturing the raw energy of people and situations. Yu’s film is a powerful example of direct cinema that hits the target and the audience.